Shamni Pande

"Most premium brands are pressed by the need to offer high quality at affordable prices,"

Strutting into India in June 1995, Levi Strauss had the advantage of being known as the company that invented jeans. But it didn't leverage that USP. "Our aim then was to establish the brand's premium positioning," remembers CS Suryanarayanan, managing director, who joined the company a year after it set up shop in the country. By mid-1998, it was clear that Levi's was not going anywhere. Which is when Levi's began using multi-brand outlets like Blues Bizaar or Shopper's Stop, and launched a new campaign with Indian elements thrown in. Yet the brand remained a non-starter

Cut to 2003. Forty-six-year-old Suryanarayanan has managed to bring that touch of Bollywood glamour to the label that until now lived entirely on its borrowed international appeal. Turning the tables on competition with one fell swoop - helped adequately by the price adjustments in 1999 - Suryanarayanan claims to have established Levi's and Dockers as "lead" brands in the premium segment. In this exclusive interview to Shamni Pande of agencyfaqs!, he speaks about why it became necessary to rework the brand strategy, what prompted him to change agency earlier this year and the way ahead ...

Edited Excerpts

Being a premium brand, the rollout of Levi's in India wouldn't have been very easy. What did you discern your task was when you were scouting for opportunities in the country?

In 1995, when the Levi's brand was launched in India, the task was essentially to set up a strong foundation for the brand in the country. Even before the launch, it was very clear that this was a highly aspired for brand and therefore, we had to ensure that the product met the expectations of the consumer. A lot of effort went into meeting international quality norms and setting up exclusive stores that could showcase the brand in an impactful way in retail. LSIL (Levi Strauss India Ltd) opened several exclusive stores to do justice to the premium image of the products. Clearly, the premium category of jeans was yet to be created and Levi's undertook the task of doing just that with its product and marketing efforts.

Market creation is not possible without getting your distribution strategy right. What kind of attention did you give to this aspect of the business?

In the early years, the strategy was to distribute and sell Levi's in the top metros where the level of awareness of the brand was higher compared to the smaller towns and cities. The larger metros, therefore, saw a whole lot of marketing activities aimed at creating the right kind of awareness among potential consumers. Much of the campaign used international imagery and international associations, driven by the fact that the youth has a universal language and appeal, and therefore, would look at Levi's the way youth all over the world looks at it. This strategy helped in establishing a strong international image for the brand in India.

As the brand got established through initial product launches, marketing communication and exclusive retail stores, it was natural for LSIL to extend the availability of its products. Thus, from purely exclusive stores, the distribution was extended to multi-brand outlets, national chain stores such as Shoppers' Stop etc.

What was the early reaction to your products in India?

The products that were introduced in the early stages were extremely successful in terms of acceptance, particularly on fits, for which the Levi's brand is known. Our more successful products are Levi's 517 Boot-cut, Levi's 560 - Hip Hugger for women, to cite a couple of examples.

While denims continued to be the anchor around which the brand expanded, a number of new categories - such as non-denims, tops and accessories - were also launched to present a complete look rather than offering just another set of products.

Some of our notable campaigns were those for Original Body Language, Easy to Get In, the Cargoes, the Detachables, the Loose Fit and, more recently, the Low Rise - Dangerously Low. All these product-led campaigns reinforced Levi's as a product innovator with the ability to interpret fashion in an interesting manner.

Did you have to tweak your early strategy or would you say Levi's was bang on target right from the beginning?

The only adjustment that Levi's made in its strategy 1999 onwards was the introduction of a range of lower priced products to supplement the premium range because the premium market was definitely smaller in terms of size.

To grow the business, we recognised the need for a presence in the Rs 900 range. Barring this, there hasn't been any significant change in the overall brand strategy. The efforts are only in terms of being able to connect with the youth in a more effective manner and this will be a constant effort with us. The evolution of media vehicles and the rapid changes in the life of the youth as a whole have been quite dramatic in the past six/seven years and we have constantly followed these changes to be able to connect with the youth.

If all was going well, what prompted you to switch agency?

After seven years of doing business in India, we felt it is only appropriate that we challenge ourselves on every aspect of the business to be able to do it better. As part of this exercise, we invited a number of advertising agencies to come up with their best ideas to build our brands. An objective evaluation of various agencies led us to the decision to switch from McCann to JW Thompson.

Are Indian consumers any different from those you have met in other markets?

The expectation of the Indian consumer is 'international quality at local prices'. Most branded apparels operating in the premium segment have to contend with very high expectations on quality, and freshness in terms of offering, and are pressed by the need to offer them at prices that consumers think they can afford. But the high instance of taxes and duties, the high retail margin and real estate costs put a lot of pressure on the business, and constrain the development of products that can met consumer expectations in terms of quality and prices.

Levi's is putting a lot of stress on oomph with its Low Rise jeans. How big a draw is oomph in India?

The 'Low Rise' campaign has been a tremendous success as is evident from the momentum around the brand. The youth has loved the product and the campaign, and has taken to it like fish to water. Many more product innovations with interesting campaigns could be expected from the brand as we go into other segments.

Granted Levi's is your flagship brand, but in terms of the money and resources spent, Dockers seems to be out in the cold. Comment.

After making a lot of noise in the initial stages as a brand, the focus for Dockers has shifted to getting retail stores in place. Dockers has the largest range of trousers to offer to consumers and showcasing all of it is impossible in the smaller MBOs (multi-brand outlets). A number of exclusive stores are now being set up in the top nine metros to be able to present the complete range of Dockers trousers. In any case, from just trousers, the brand has extended its offerings to woven tops, knits, winterwear, jackets and flat knits to offer a complete portfolio to choose from.

The recent Dockers promotion has been a runaway success, giving a clear indication that the brand is being seen as the topmost trouser brand in the premium sector. We have also seen a significant growth in the Dockers tops business. We expect that the brand's contribution to our overall sales will only increase in the future.

In specific terms, what is the company doing to pull the brand out of the rut it has got itself into?

On the contrary, we are very satisfied with the growth of the Dockers brand. It has established itself at the No 1 spot in some of the key national chain stores in the men's wear category. A clear indication that in an unrestricted choice situation, there is a tremendous interest around the brand.

Top apparel makers like Arvind Brands and Madura Garments have their own company-owned retail outlets. Does that put you at a disadvantage?

Our business model is not to own stores but to have exclusive stores run by franchisees. We do not find any disadvantage in this because the process of selection of franchisees is fairly elaborate. We ensure that our franchisees have the necessary skill sets and the willingness to partner with us in building our brands and thus contribute to the growth of our business. We assist our franchisees with retail support and by sharing with them the best practices of store management.

What is your strategy to compete with local labels that offer the same fit and style for much less money. Many of our young people in India are not really brand conscious, as they are style conscious. How have you reconciled these two trends?

We are fully conscious that successful products will be copied and offered for much lesser price by other brands. But being product innovators, we are not unduly concerned by the imitators. We have banked on our innovation pipeline to move ahead with new products. Let me also say that the brand-conscious lot among our youth population is definitely increasing and we have seen significant changes in their buying habits from what existed four/five years ago.

The opinion leaders in the fashion segment have been our loyal brand consumers; we now have a large number of mainstream consumers becoming brand conscious as the exposure to brands increases. In the youth segment, this phenomenon is particularly visible. We fight local labels on the basis of superior product, quality and freshness of offerings. As innovators, we have a definite edge. This is borne out by the expectations around our new products and by the increasing base of consumers who are paying a premium to buy our products.

When a new international trend is launched, many local brands also rush in and imitate the style/fabric trend and even the advertising strategy. How have Levi's and Dockers sustained the level of differentiation required to tackle cheaper competition?

While trends are established at a fairly broad level, it is the task of the brands to interpret them in a manner that is appropriate for the consumer. For instance, if one is confronted with an emerging non-denim trend, the options of interpreting the trend in terms of products are quite varied. The product introduction and the marketing campaigns are done keeping in mind the value proposition of the brand and the brand character. Here is where the differentiation between the brands happen. The clarity around this is the skill set that the brand brings and it is here that the Levi's and Dockers stand out.

The consumer looks for a brand that helps him get the right look. An example of this would be the Cargoes campaign where Levi's took the front-end position in promoting this category. The rest is history, as Cargoes now have become a part and parcel of the industry. The Boot Cut is yet another example of a look that was strongly advocated by Levi's and has now come to a stage where it has become the biggest sub-category in the jeans market.

Events and promotions are a big thing in India to woo consumers. What has been your experience?

Our brands look at various media options to connect with the target consumer - such as print, television, Internet, events etc. The media vehicle used is largely defined by the nature of contact and the objective of the specific campaign. We definitely acknowledge the fact that in a changing media scenario, we need to be smart and adapt relevant communication channels rather than getting stuck with a particular form of media.

What will be your key focus for the next couple of years?

India is extremely important and is one of our fastest growing markets in Asia Pacific. I suppose we would continue to be in a high activity mode over the next five years.

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